“The sector is really skilled at gathering student feedback – what we are less good at doing is responding to let students know how their feedback is being used”

Written by Dr Ailsa Crum, Head of Quality and Enhancement | Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Scotland.

Are students consumers or partners? This was the first question I asked delegates in my keynote presentation at the virtual Bluenotes Global 2020. Interestingly, 83% said “a bit of both”, which reflects the complex relationship we have with our students. There are obviously ways in which students do buy products or services from us, but what I am most interested in is thinking about engaging with students in a learning and teaching context. When we think of students in their role as learners, do we consider them to be consumers or partners then?

A ComRes survey carried out for Universities UK in January 2017 found that 47% of students regard themselves as consumers of their university, whilst 53% said they would not. A further 79% said they value their relationship with their university and 87% said their university treats students fairly, indicating high levels of trust across the sector. A 2017 study by Bunce, Bair and Jones found that having a consumer orientation affects the traditional relationships between learner identity, grade goal and academic performance. In particular, they found that having a high consumer orientation was associated with lower academic performance (Louise Bunce, Amy Baird and Siân E. Jones, 2017, The Student-as-Consumer Approach in Higher Education and its Effects on Academic Performance, Studies in Higher Education). And writing in 2012, Graham Gibbs emphasised that ‘Students do not consume knowledge but construct it…they are co-producers and collaborators’ (Gibbs, G, 2012, Implications of ‘Dimensions of Quality’ a market environment, Higher Education Academy research series).

In Scotland, and the 19 higher education institutions we work with, we think of students as partners mostly. We have the Quality Enhancement Framework, which has involved a series of enhancement themes over the past 15 years. The most recent theme, which we are pulling to a close now, is ‘Evidence for Enhancement: Improving the Student Experience’. This has a really strong emphasis on student voice, how we gather student views and what we do with those views. A key part of that is making sure students are working in partnership with us, engaging in projects including approaches to evaluation and thinking about how data can be used to inform decision-making around key topics including mental wellbeing, the intangible benefits of higher education, and employability. At the heart of our work has been a drive to help students not only be data subjects but become data users – to that end we have produced a substantial guide for students using data.

We have had student representation and participation throughout and across the management and delivery of the theme. As a result of a student-led project on Responding to the Student Voice which involved an international scan of practice, we developed a set of eight Principles for Responding to the Student Voice. We built these principles into a suite of activity cards which can be used as part of regular staff-student engagement in universities. Initially available as physical card packs, we have redeveloped them for use in a digital environment. They are available to use as they are but can also be adapted by individual universities wishing to adjust the activities to their own circumstances. Although our Principles of Practice were designed along with the Scottish sector, they are applicable to institutions all over the world. We know, for example, they have been used by universities in other parts of the UK when undertaking institutional self-evaluation exercises for the Teaching Excellence Framework, and they have also been used as far afield as Sri Lanka.

Within the Scottish sector, one of the strengths of our universities has been listening to and gathering students’ opinions about the nature of their learning and teaching experience. This has come through strongly in all the reviews and evaluations we have done. Where the sector collectively felt we could be better was responding to that student voice. That does not mean to say that institutions were not taking action on what they were hearing, but what they were less good at doing was actually telling students how their feedback was being used.

Responding to the student voice is not necessarily about doing everything they ask for – but responding by saying ‘that is an interesting view, but we cannot/will not do that right now’ is important for transparency. Being timely in responding is also important. Students sometimes complain that their feedback will only affect subsequent cohorts rather than benefitting current students. However, a number of universities have developed dynamic approaches which do enable current cohorts to see the impact of their views.

I went on to ask delegates whether the impact of Covid-19 was likely to change the nature of the relationship between higher education providers and their students. 80% of delegates at Bluenotes Global 2020 thought it would, and just 6% did not. A further 14% were unsure.

I was also interested to find out from the Bluenotes Global 2020 community how learning online has affected the frequency of seeking student views. 84% of delegates reported that we need to survey more often. This is likely to reflect the fact that, online, you have fewer opportunities for talking directly to students in a less formal way – asking for a show of hands in a classroom or those times when a student might hang back to have a discussion with their tutor before or after class starts. In online environment we need to plan how we can put arrangements in place to recreate that less formal experience.

My final question found that 81% of delegates thought that online learning meant that responding immediately (or quickly) to students’ views was key, against 19% preferring to reflect on multiple student years/cohorts. In many respects, there is a need to do both, responding quickly for certain aspects of the student experience but perhaps taking a more reflective approach for adjustments to curriculum content or more fundamental pedagogy.

Before closing, I touched on our Focus On: Feedback from Assessment project. Our review work had found that there could be improvements in a range of practice, such as the timeliness of feedback, the approaches for helping students to use feedback to understand their grades, and the consistency of feedback across different subject areas. So having undertaken that work, how have we tackled it? We also drew on past experience from an earlier assessment and feedback project we had run. We wanted to look at progress in the sector from the first project and to capture staff and student opinion, which we developed into a series of short films highlighting what works which can be found on the QAA Scotland website. In particular, we looked at how technology can be used to provide student feedback on assessed work.

I appreciated the opportunity to talk to the Explorance community via Bluenotes Global. Explorance, and John Atherton (General Manager – Europe and South Africa) in particular, have been great supporters of our work in Scotland.


Dr. Ailsa Crum, Head of Quality and Enhancement, The Quality Assurance Agency, Scotland

Dr Ailsa Crum is Head of Quality and Enhancement at Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Scotland. This article is related to Dr Crum’s keynote speech ‘Does our relationship with students affect how we hear and respond to the student voice?’ at Bluenotes Global 2020 on 3rd August 2020: BNG 2020 VX First Keynote Speech

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